TI exec: Pandemic accelerated changes that were coming anyway

Shelly Ryster-Blanton at Treasure Island Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021.

For years, Las Vegas has been billed as an “anything goes” kind of destination. But these days, heightened safety measures and their more conspicuous presence make a different statement to tourists.

“We found that most of our clients and guests greatly appreciate that we went above and beyond with sanitization stations, complimentary masks, plastic guards, cleaning around them while they enjoy our pool, casino, lounges, etc.,” says Shelly Ryser-Blanton, executive director of sales at Treasure Island. “The general attitude from those willing to travel to Vegas at this time is they are truly comfortable with the mitigation efforts with minimal impact in their overall experience.”

And that goes for conventions, as well. Treasure Island’s team forecasted more than a year ago that small groups would trickle in as soon as the resorts reopened, but that larger conventions would only return after guests and visitors were fully vaccinated against COVID-19. With vaccination numbers steadily climbing again after a brief lull, Ryser-Blanton is expecting a large convention market mix in September and October.

Tell us about work done to improve Treasure Island’s convention and meeting space the past few years, and your role in that.

Treasure Island’s original 18,000 square feet of convention space was initially intended for pirate-themed weddings and receptions. However, the hotel found that many of the pirate weddings in the chapel and the ships in what was then Buccaneer Bay — now Sirens Cove — did not necessarily require full receptions. Because of this, the space was equipped more for convention, incentive, association and SMERF groups (social, military, educational, religious and fraternal groups).

In 2012, the original space received a $4 million renovation. I was part of the hotel sales team that assisted in selecting some of the deigns and equipment based on feedback from our best clients. In late 2016, we converted a poolside restaurant located directly under the original convention space into a 10,500-square-foot ballroom along with two 1,000-square-foot breakout rooms, and added escalators connecting the new and original event spaces. Again, I was part of the team that assisted in selecting some of the designs, equipment and naming the rooms (Antilles, Bahamas, Coral) to complement our original space. We now feature 30,500 square feet of modern meeting and event space.

Our biggest competitive advantage beyond our ideal location is the convenience of our space, easily accessible from any guest room elevator (i.e. without having to walk across a casino floor), and our groups feel more like the space is truly theirs, as opposed to being one of many in the larger convention facilities.

What does success in tourism look like in a post-2020 world? Do we have to redefine our expectations? Or develop new strategies to reach previous goals?

We anticipate many organizations both in hospitality and meeting planner industries will continue with some of the changes they were forced to make during the pandemic, including requests for new technology and the ability to nimbly react to changing needs. However, in terms of our business models, market mix, room night goals and so on, we do not believe it will be significantly different since we introduced our new meeting space about five years ago.

How have the developments to the north of Spring Mountain Road affected tourism at Treasure Island?

Over the past 15 years while at TI, I have taken pride in developing strong relationships with the largest citywide conventions utilizing the Las Vegas Convention Center, and anticipate that will continue and perhaps grow a bit with the new West Hall expansion.

Is there any aspect of the pandemic, culturally speaking, that you expect to remain with us after it ends, in terms of how tourists are served in Las Vegas?

We have slowly introduced new service-related technologies over the years, and that was accelerated during the pandemic both out of need and opportunity to put in place. Services like touchless payment systems, self check-in kiosks, enhanced Wi-Fi, online reservations, etc., have all benefited our convention clients and hotel guests. Additionally, we believe our enhanced cleaning and sanitation efforts will become standard operating procedure.

What is the best business advice you’ve received?

In sales, it has been under-promise and over-deliver to create long-lasting relationships and loyal clients, which has been the motto of our longtime vice president of hotel sales, Don Voss. In business, I learned from a former director that I should only work for a hotel with a product that I am passionate about when selling, and for a boss who is willing to get into the trenches with his team and listen to ideas. Over 15 years ago, I was fortunate to find both when I was given the opportunity to work at Treasure Island.

Is there some business decision you’d like to have back and do differently?

When I was at another property, I had to walk away from a repeat piece of business because it was no longer a good fit for the property, as it was decided we could do better. I had a great relationship with the client, and it was a very difficult conversation. They ended up moving to another hotel, and we never replaced the business. I regret that I did not fight harder to keep that client’s business.

What’s the biggest issue facing Southern Nevada?

Right now, Southern Nevada needs to focus its energy on sustainable growth for both tourism and its residents. With the many advances Las Vegas has experienced in the past few decades, there is reasonable unease about our current access to natural resources and infrastructure. At the same time, we should continue developing new industries to diversify our economy, as well as new projects that will continue to make Las Vegas and Southern Nevada among the most dynamic players in the tourism industry.

What are you reading right now? Or binge-watching?

My husband and I just recently finished watching Game of Thrones. It seems like we were the only people in the world who had not seen it. I really had no desire because we saw the series finale live without seeing any other episodes, and it seemed very anticlimactic. However, we decided to go for it, and we absolutely loved it, with the exception of the finale. There are so many better endings that could have happened, but overall, it was great. I am thankful I was able to watch all of the seasons all at once because it would have driven my crazy to wait a year between each.

Now, we are onto Dexter, another series that everyone has raved about. So far so good, but I am questioning myself as I find myself to be rooting for a serial killer. We shall see if that changes.

Whom do you admire and why?

I admire so many people, as I have always had a strong support system, but two individuals are at top of mind. The first is my son, Garrett. Ever since he was born over 18 years ago, he has inspired me to be a better and more compassionate person. I am so proud of him, as he is hardworking, smart, caring and an amazing cellist. I am sure he has no idea that he inspires me, but I hope I did my best to be the role model that he needed to prepare him for his adult life, which just started this month. I moved him into his dorm in Reno, where he will study engineering.

The second person is my sister-in-law, Laura, who just recently went through a battle with breast cancer during a pandemic. She is my hero right now because she has been so vocal about her experience throughout the entire process, sharing her faith and everything, the good and the bad. She has no idea how absolutely amazing she is, and I hope I will be as strong as she is if I am ever in a similar situation.

What is something that people might not know about you?

I am a strong supporter for the fight to eliminate breast cancer. I started this support back in the early '90s when my fraternity, Zeta Tau Alpha (ZTA), partnered with the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation as our national philanthropy. This cause has a big place in my heart because I lost my grandmother to this horrific disease, and I have had many friends and family members who have fought battles as well. I once raised over $5,000 and walked 60 miles to help raise funds and awareness for this cause. It was the hardest and most rewarding event that I have ever participated in as I was able to connect and hear the stories of many survivors.

I have also participated in the NFL Crucial Catch Breast Cancer Awareness campaign through ZTA. We passed out ZTA Think Pink Ribbons to thousands of fans at a San Diego Chargers game to spread awareness. Currently, I serve as the ZTA Walk Coordinator, a position that I have held for the past five years, for the American Cancer Society Making Strides Against Breast Cancer Walk here in Vegas. We are in charge of the Survivor Experience at the walk, and my favorite part is getting to know the survivors. I encourage all women and men to do a monthly breast exam — it can save your life.


This story appeared in Las Vegas Weekly.